In Australia, a Small Town Overcome With Hairy Panic

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Hairy Panic, a tumbleweed native to Australia, blocks a garage door at a home in a small town outside of Melbourne. . (Photo: 7 News)

When it comes to flora, fauna and a wide variety of natural phenomena, the Australian continent is very much not a place for the weak of heart. That is, unless you’re a-OK living amongst stinging trees, hot pink slugs, human-swallowing sinkholes and a range of critters best described as venomous, poisonous and scary as hell.

Now, there’s hairy panic to deal with.

And it’s not what you think.

Also known by its far less ill-boding scientific designation, Panicum effusum, hairy panic is the colloquial name for a type of fast-growing grass — or a “tufted, warm season, generally short-lived perennial to 0.5m high” per the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries — that's native to inland Australia and can be found growing in just about every Australian state. The plant gets its name from the hairy quality of its leaves — the dull green leaves have “distinctive long glandular hairs along the leaf margins.”


And while hairy panic isn’t exactly causing panic in Wangaratta, a small city in the far northeast reaches of Victoria, a scourge of tumbleweed brought on by drier-than-normal conditions has proved irksome for homeowners overwhelmed by large masses of the stuff being blown about by the wind. On one street, hairy panic (aka the best 1970s British metal band that never was) has blanketed the yards and driveways of homes. In some cases, it's piled roof-high, blocking doors, windows and garages.

In addition to parched summer weather, locals are blaming the grassy disturbance on a farmer who let his paddock go to seed. Noting that the tumbleweed makes it "difficult to get the car out in the morning — if you can find it," resident Jason Parna explains to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "We're on the border of a farm-zoned rural property and a couple of years ago they planted a crop of hay in there. They didn't plant anything last year and its just derived from the grass that's died."

He adds: "It'd be great if the farmer actually farmed the land, or did some slashing or ploughing of it just to keep that tumbleweed from growing or spreading any further."

As you can see, hairy panic isn’t pleasant — I’m itchy just watching the above news segment — and it takes time and patience to clean the stuff up. “It’s physically draining, and mentally more draining,” another beleaguered Wangaratta homeowner explains to Prime 7 News, pointing out that her patio furniture — and “probably a few plants” — have been buried under a thick accumulation of tumbleweed.

For the most part, homeowners are left to fend for themselves against hairy panic. Given that the tumbleweed presents no immediate fire danger, local authorities are not obligated to clear marauding piles from private property.

“The council has a very limited capacity to intervene, but we are attempting to work with residents and nearby farmers,” a council spokesman tells The Guardian, nothing that streets sweepers are being deployed to impacted areas. “We don’t know effective it’s going to be until we try.”

On a more ominous note, the spokesman explains: “It’s widespread. It can happen in any town, at any time, and it does happen in Wangaratta. It just spreads from farm to farm.”

Unless you happen to fall into a pile of hairy panic and never come out again, contact with the tumbleweed isn’t dangerous to humans. Pets should be fine, too. However, when hairy panic is digested in large quantities in its non-dried state by livestock, the animals can be afflicted with a highly Australian-sounding malady called yellow big-head.

While Wangaratta will now forever be known for the Great Hairy Panic Attack of '16, it's an otherwise ordinary riverside town — the "Ultimate in Livability" proclaims the city website — that's home to 17,000 residents and a bevy of parks, cafes and regional wineries. Among Australians, Wangaratta is perhaps most famous for its annual jazz festival and for serving as a gateway to the Australian Alps. Brooding musician and all-around renaissance man Nick Cave also grew up there although he doesn't have very nice things to say about it.

Via [The Guardian], [ABC]